Recent Horror's Nostalgic Shift
Updated: Apr 10, 2019
Written by Andrew McGowan
Illustration by Kayla Snyder
Whenever a film genre passes the height of its popularity or its conventions become too predictable, it must undergo some sort of transformation to remain alive and relevant. Film theorists suggest that there are a handful of ways that moviemakers can adapt a genre’s tropes to revamp its success; two of the most common ways involve either parody or nostalgia. Horror films already underwent a cycle of parody-driven transformation in 1996 when Wes Craven’s Scream hit theaters, leading a line of pseudo-slasher comedies that perhaps reached a peak with the outrageously burlesque Scary Movie franchise. In the past couple of years, however, the genre has branched out from this satirical trend, and some of its biggest films and television shows have focused instead on nostalgia. Netflix’s Stranger Things has capitalized on 1980s references, Warner Brothers Studio remade Stephen King’s It, and most recently, Halloween received a sequel forty years after John Carpenter’s original film. Audiences can presume that a new trend is evolving out of horror, one that depends on reminiscence just as much as it does on fear.
This nostalgic shift perhaps first noticeably took place in the summer of 2016, when Netflix first released Matt and Ross Duffer’s Stranger Things. Taking place in 1983, this series focuses on a group of four nerdy middle schoolers who get caught up in mystery, monsters, and myths in the quaint town of Hawkins, Indiana. The series’ setting plays a major role in its narrative and aesthetic, from costumes to customs that reflect 1980s youth so that contemporary adults can watch it wistfully. This nostalgic catering was obvious even in the show’s marketing, when the promotional poster took on the same kind of aesthetic design seen in original ads for classic films such as The Empire Strikes Back and Back to the Future.
The series opens with the young characters playing Dungeons and Dragons in a basement cluttered with iconic action figures and toys from the decade. Throughout the series, viewers notice more subtle details that further highlight this retro vibe, such as Ronald Reagan speeches playing on background television sets, a soundtrack recurrently featuring The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” and countless references to Carl Sagan’s TV series, Cosmos. The youth protagonists themselves also add to this nostalgic energy, creating circumstances and scenes that allude to 1980s coming-of-age classics such as E.T. and Stand By Me.
The series’ second season takes place a year later in 1984. Once again, its marketing assured audiences that it would deliver the same amount of 80s nostalgia as the first season, with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” featured in the commercial’s background. Netflix and the Duffer brothers kept this promise when the season came out on Halloween 2017, opening with the kids enthusiastically playing the recognizable Dragon Lair arcade game. As the season progresses, the audience relishes in more 80s references than ever before— the kids dress up as the Ghostbusters for Halloween; Bon Jovi makes an appearance on the soundtrack; and The Goonies’ star Sean Astin joins the cast. In the season finale, the middle schoolers slow dance to The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” in a gym and the 1980s vibes could not be more delightfully ubiquitous.
Of course, the Duffer brothers could have chosen to tell the same sci-fi horror narrative in a contemporary setting. However, it is hard to imagine Stranger Things capturing the same sense of heartfelt wonder if the characters and setting weren’t a previous time period that audiences can reminisce about as simpler. Of all the eras in which the series could have taken place in though, Matt and Ross Duffer chose the 1980s. This is likely because the decade was a major time for pop culture films, especially horror ones. In the decade’s first five years alone, audiences were petrified by landmark features such as The Shining, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Thing, The Evil Dead and Poltergeist. Clearly, this was the decade for scary movies, so why not return to it to revamp the genre in the 2010s?
Another big influence on the horror genre that rose to prevalence in the 1980s was famed fiction writer Stephen King. Although not known primarily for his work in film, King effectively frightened readers with one bestselling novel after another throughout the 1980s, churning out some of his most celebrated books such as Misery, Pet Sematary, Cujo, and most relevantly for modern fans, It. King’s massive and harrowing It spans over a thousand pages, telling the story of a group of kids in 1958 who fight a cosmically demonic clown infamous for killing children and feeding on their fear. Television adapted It for the screen once before in 1990, but Warner Brothers and director Andrés Muschietti reintroduced the story to modern viewers yet again with a filmic remake in 2017. The 2017 movie does diverge from the original novel in a few ways though. Perhaps most noticeably, the film takes place in 1989 rather than the 1950s.
The 1980s setting serves many of the same functions in It as it does in Stranger Things; however, It’s temporality adds somewhat of an extra meta-commentary on the genre’s nostalgic shift. By taking place in the 1980s and making retro references to the period, It fosters a nostalgia for the time when Stephen King first introduced this very story into the world. Furthermore, King’s novel uses the 1950s setting in the same way that the current film uses the 1980s setting. In the book, King makes frequent references to old Universal horror movies such as The Wolfman and The Creature from the Black Lagoon to appease his 1980s readers with some wistful fascination amongst all of the disturbing details. Therefore, it is only appropriate that the current film offers its 2010s audience the same nostalgic feeling with references to the 1980s.
Most recently, this October, audiences were also given the treat of revisiting the masked-horror franchise that started it all. Twelve days before Halloween 2018, Blumhouse Productions and director David Gordon Green released a late sequel to John Carpenter’s 1974 foundational slasher film, Halloween. Green’s sequel (which has the same title as the original) reprises lead actress Jamie Lee Curtis in her role as protagonist and final girl Laurie Strode. Forty years after the events of the original film, the 2018 movie portrays Strode as an old woman, paranoid and haunted by the trauma she experienced in 1974 at the hands of cinema’s most famous masked murderer, Michael Myers. Myers is in a prison for the criminally insane at the start of this film, having been locked up there since the end of the first movie. Similar to the original film though, Myers eventually escapes during a transfer and makes his way into the suburbs to mercilessly slaughter unassuming people on Halloween night.
Green’s Halloween uses a number of the slasher conventions that Carpenter established in his original film. In addition to seeing Laurie and Michael back on screen, fans may appreciate many of the psychosexual generic horror tropes featured throughout the film: sexually indulgent teenagers meet their fates at the hands of the killer, protective male figures clumsily fail to provide safety for female victims, and of course, celibate and strategic women are the only characters who get the best of the antagonist in the end. Many of these tropes could just come off as cliché if put in an entirely new movie. After all, a masked killer going around and stabbing teenagers to death does not exactly scream originality. When applied to a film that stems directly and transparently from Carpenter’s 1974 classic though, audiences tend to overlook the cheesy predictability and instead embrace these familiar elements as reminders of what once made slashers so thrillingly appealing.
Although it does not take place in a previous decade, Halloween uses nostalgia to restore the horror genre in the same vein as Stranger Things and It, fostering scenes and settings through script and cinematography that evoke a longing for the past. This cultivation of nostalgia works so well that audiences perhaps no longer even watch horror to feel scared. Instead, they might indulge in it to simply relive a prior time-- to return to the 1970s or 80s when arcade games, rock and roll, and unapologetically terrifying movies were mainstream. Of course, jump scares and suspense are still present in these new films and television series, but audiences may get just as much of a thrill out of the nostalgia as they do out of the intended frights.